A Carrick-on-Suir drapery – 200 years in the business – is now run by the sixth generation of the same family. We are here to serve you and we look forward to seeing you in store in the near future.
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If Lonan Burke tells a good story it’s because he has a good story to tell. A spade-is-a-spade man, gently humorous with it and the sixth generation to successfully run the family drapery business on Main Street, Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary. He knows a thing or two about commerce and the circumstances of life.
An anecdote about the latter illustrates the desperation and poverty of the hungry 1930s. It happened in 1936 when Patrick Bourke, having run the company with an iron will since 1874, died and was being waked. “A woman came to the door,” Lonan says, “announcing she’d heard ‘the boss’ was dead and wondering if there was ‘any chance of his false teeth?’ She got them and was glad of them.”
The extra “o” in the firm’s name is another part of the story of a company Lonan Burke says he’s proud to have “kept going for the last 30 years. It was started in 1806 as a linen drapery in Carrick’s Main Street by John and Richard Hogan and their sister, Catherine.”
He makes this sound like it happened yesterday. “They seem to have come from Holycross, in Tipperary. Twenty years later Catherine went into a convent, but didn’t relinquish her share of the company. In 1936, their nephew, Richard Bourke, arrived from Holycross to work in the shop. When the brothers died, in 1847 and 1850 respectively, nephew Richard carried on the business and, eventually, bought out Catherine Hogan and changed the company name to Bourke.”
Patrick Bourke, another nephew, joined Richard in 1856. Records indicate he travelled from Holycross by Bianconi coach. Richard ran things until he died in 1874 when Patrick became the sole owner of Bourke’s Linen Drapery.
It was with Patrick, Lonan says, “that the modern era of the company began. He died in 1936, aged 94. He was my father’s grandfather and a tough, if charitable, dude with many, many stories told about him. Even to the day I joined the company in 1971, his legacy was there in the way brown paper was reused and so was twine, to the inch. And still,” he laughs, “he could lose thousands on shares and such. He was a founder member of St Vincent de Paul and a trustee of the Bourke Asylum and Wadding charity.”
The apprentice system being a big part of the Bourke story, Lonan produces a 1858 indenture form for one James Flynn of Clonea, Co Waterford. Flynn’s father witnessed, gave consent and his son was thereafter forbidden from “fornication”, from “frequenting taverns, ale houses or playhouses”. Young Flynn also ran the risk of being fined 5/- (half his yearly pay) if he had the misfortune to be “absent” from work.
“There used be 12 of them living over the shop,” Lonan says, “and even when I joined we had a cook and two maids feeding the employees and doing the beds and rooms. They would have had ‘the run of your jaw’ as they say here, meaning they were fed. They were well minded, too, but paid very little.”
P Bourke & Co became a limited company on May 10th, 1909, which was around the time Patrick Bourke’s son and heir, Patrick junior, disappeared and left his only sibling, his sister Hanna, as the focus of his father’s attention.
Hanna Bourke was sent to finishing school in Switzerland and to an academy in Paris to learn French and the piano. Lonan remembers her well: she was his grandmother and the-how-and-why of the entrance of Burke without an “o” into the family scheme of things.
“Her father made her a director of the company and told her she must marry a Bourke so as to keep the company in the family name,” he explains. She did the best she could, marrying James L Burke, a Dublin solicitor and set up home on the capital’s Waterloo Road. They had five children, one of them Lonan’s father Raymond, before James L succumbed to the great flu in 1935.
“She was a lovely lady,” Lonan remembers, “and reared the children on her own. She took over as chairperson of the company when her father died in 1936 – from her Dublin base since she would never have gone behind the counter! As per her father’s directions, she didn’t change the spelling of the shop’s name.”
The family was always, he says, “very, very proud of the business, terribly proud of it”. His grandmother, when asked where her son, Lonan’s father, was to be trained, declared that: “Even Harrods in London wouldn’t be good enough for a Burke of Carrick.”
Lonan’s father, Raymond L Burke, came to work in the shop in 1931 “without serving his time in the old way. He liked the good life and arrived in a red sports car called a Robin, the cool dude coming to town! There was a manager in the shop at the time called William Quinn who’d worked here all his life. He stayed until he died in 1940 and my father took over then. He was good at the book work and spent a lot of time in the office, though he did come out onto the floor to greet people.
“We used have lots of staff living overhead in the apartments, including two brothers, Hugh and Martin Ryan from Mothel, Co Waterford, who worked for 63 and 60 years for the company. They never married, were married to the company! My father served as a Fine Gael counsellor for 27/28 years on the Urban District Council, was a founding member of the operatic society and of the Lions Club.”
Raymond L Burke married Dymphna Nugent whose father, a landowner and wine and tea merchant, was 94 when he attended his daughter’s wedding in 1943. They had three daughters and three sons, and lived in the old rectory bought by Raymond Burke for £945 when he married. Three minutes walk from the shop, it’s where Lonan lives today.
Lonan Burke and his siblings were not, he says, “involved in the business growing up. I remember the shop as long and narrow with household on the right and, on the left, men’s outfitting, as well as shrouds and men’s heavy underwear. The shrouds were wrapped in brown paper and cost 1/11d. Further along was haberdashery and the office and men’s clothing, such as suits, sports jackets and slacks. This last part was run by Pat Drohan who worked here for 60 years.
“The ladies department was upstairs and my mother looked after this in latter years. I came home in 1971, after serving my time in Bests in Dublin.”
The front of the shop had been reworked in Italian marble in 1952 but the inside needed “a revamp, which I had done. In 1976 my father handed over most of the responsibility to me – I got to sign the cheques and that sort of thing! His health wasn’t good so I’ve been effectively running things for 30 years. He officially retired in 1986 and died in 1997. My mother died in 1992.
“The 30 years have seen lots of changes. There are some 6,000 people in Carrick-on-Suir and then there are the two big business towns of Clonmel and Waterford close by. We’ve to fight for everything, all of our business. We’ve a lot of customers who’ve been coming for generations and lots of new people as well.”
These days, menswear (on the ground floor) “services all age groups; sons, husbands and grandfathers. We keep a massive stock. Household, on the first floor, is now run by my wife, Kay, where we still do Foxford blankets and sheets. We’ve recently refurbished and opened up the basement, once the kitchen where staff used eat, and made a nice ladies’ department there which is run by my eldest daughter, Leonie. We’re delighted with it, we’ve now three shops in one.” Lonan and Kay Burke have three daughters and, at 57, he says he’s “hale and hearty and have no intention of selling or anything. I’ll keep going as long as possible. This business will go on and on.”